Wednesday, September 11, 2013

'The Call' (2013) directed by Brad Anderson

Halle Berry takes..... THE CALL
The Call is a movie about a woman sat in a call centre talking to a girl trapped in the boot of a car.  Not exactly the most dynamic set up in cinema right?  Two central characters unable to move from confined, cramped and mundane locations. I felt apprehensive.  This apprehension intensified with the ominous appearance of the WWE wrestling logo at the beginning of the film.  Perhaps it's just me, but tense psychological thrillers and the world of pro-wrestling are a bit, well, chalk and cheese.

Our hero is 911 operator Jordan McKenzie (Halle Berry). She's a consummate professional, dealing calmly with the constant flow of chaos and panic coming through her headset. Shootings, suicides, wild animals on the loose, she takes them all in her stride.  She's calculated but also warm and reassuring, obviously great at her job.  Then one night she takes a call where it all goes wrong: her actions inadvertently result in a girl being murdered. Her confidence shattered, she resigns from the desk, settling for teaching new operators.  But then, one day another call - The Call - comes in.  The murderer that drove her from the job is back with a new victim.  Now McKenzie has a chance to absolve the mistakes of the past!  To regain her confidence and cleanse herself of guilt  - if she can just save this one girl!

If McKenzie were a cop, this redemptive arc would be unbearably cliche - yet making her a 911 operator just about inches the story into interesting.  The communications centre, referred to as 'The Hive', is impressively high-tech - operators surrounded by multiple screens, able to pinpoint calls by GPS and get in touch with police and other emergency services at the press of a button.  I just googled up the real LA 911 communications centre, which to my surprise looks pretty much identical to the film.  This verisimilitude is a big plus for the film - someone has done their homework.

She's an innocent young blonde virgin.  No prizes for guessing what happens to her.
There's little touches throughout the dialogue that ring true; the insistence that operators not make promises to their callers; asking panicked people what their favourite film is to calm them down; or simply relating to someone by saying you both share a star sign. This look at a frantic, fraught and highly emotional job was the most interesting part of the film; each call a miniature psychodrama playing out off camera, both operator and audience never knowing if the next call is going to be someone bleeding to death or simply a confused drunk wanting to chat.

This background stuff is all very well put together but unfortunately the film stumbles over every subsequent cinematic hurdle.  The central narrative, of a kidnapping serial killer is completely half-arsed, liberally ripping off Silence of the Lambs with an impressively bald audacity.  The heart of a good serial killer thriller needs to be a compellingly freaky villain - preferably played with maximum ham by a charismatic, theatrical actor.  The Call's killer, Michael Foster (Michael Eklund) is blandly generic: a deeply boring serial killer. Eklund plays him with an unconvincing tetchiness that never  comes close to tipping over into the unhinged menace the audience is secretly craving.

Eklund is dire, but the rest of the cast isn't much better.  Admittedly they're not given that much to work with.  The victim, Casey (Abigail Breslin), valiantly makes the most of a limited role which mostly consists of panicked pleading, but there's only so much you can do in a car boot.  The rest of the supporting cast are cardboard cut outs devoid of personality that exist only to move the plot along.  The only exception to this is Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti from The Sopranos), who sprinkles a subtle touch of humanity into a small part. 

The performances are a bit hamstrung by the characters being on the phone so much.
Halle Berry is a consummate professional here, nobly struggling (underneath a rather unfortunate hairdo) to inject as much humanity as she can into a script ridden with tired cliches.  To be fair to the film, it's refreshing to have a resolutely unsexualised black woman as protagonist, someone with real agency and independence.  Nice as this is, I just wish she was in a better film - Berry has to wrestle with some very clumsy dialogue and a final reel that plunges straight into cheesiness.

Further torpedoing the film is some bloody awful cinematography and editing.  The choice to frantically zoom the camera back and forth in and out of extreme close-up, use freeze-frames and rapid cutting when 'scary' stuff is happening turns the film into a Z-grade monster movie.  These are really, really clapped out cinematic techniques, which, combined with a bizarre, dubstep influenced score make The Call feel cheaper and amateurish than it needs to be.

By the final act the director has given up on any pretence of uniqueness and is content to let them film slide into straight-to-DVD style mediocrity.  We get a really dumb scene where Halle Berry discovers a ridiculously didactic photo album laid out in such a way that perfectly explains the villain's motivations.  By this point a character who was initially vaguely interesting has devolved into a shit Clarice Starling rip-off.  Berry is a consummate professional throughout, but she obviously knows how ridiculous she looks exploring the garishly green and purple lit underground lair of the villain.  As you have probably realised, The Call has decided that the best way to wrap all this up is to go as camp as possible.

It achieves this camp, a high point being the heroic Berry standing bravely in front of a swaying American flag.  Still, it feels like the film has given up on any serious dramatic punch - a bit of shame given the hints of promise in the first act.  There are a few good elements sprinkled throughout The Call objectively it's a pretty bad movie, lying near the bottom of the pile in the serial killer genre.  That said: it's blessedly short at 94 minutes and while never gripping, at least it's not boring.  

There you go marketers, pop that on the tube poster:  "At least it's not boring".

The Call is on general release from 20 September

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